Are journeys to the spirit world real? Or are we imagining them? Can we prove them? What will our friends and family think if we claim to have experienced them? These are the questions I asked myself when I first got involved in spirit walking. The scariest was the last one; what will others think? Whether we want to admit it or not, the opinions of our friends and families matter. We want their respect, not their questioning looks or outright ridicule.

Recently I read an article from Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 32, 2013, pp. 117 – 126. The journal focuses on issues dealing with anthropology and the article was submitted by Bonnie Glass-Coffin, Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University and Associate Editor of the journal Anthropology of Consciousness. Her article asks the question “why do we [anthropologists] have such a hard time taking reports of unseen realms seriously …?”

In 2006, after 20 years of studying shamanic practices, Ms. Glass-Coffin had an experience that changed her outlook on such events and eventually prompted her to write the article. At that time she had been observing an all-night shamanic ceremony. Suddenly she became conscious of the plants around her. Everything from the smallest blade of grass to the largest coconut tree acknowledged and honored her presence. Those were her exact words. Amazed, she nodded to the plants and found they returned her acknowledgment.  As she states in her article, page 117, “That experience changed the way that I view anthropology …”

Ms. Glass-Coffin hesitated to write about this or discuss it with her colleagues. It is easy to imagine their responses, especially if they had not had similar experiences. Her willingness to do so now was based on the realization that she had to speak out because she wanted all anthropologists to recognize that shamanic practices are much more than the imaginings of ‘primitive peoples’. Anthropologists observe these people from a viewpoint called cultural relativism. My interpretation of that phrase is, ‘if the local people believe in it, just humor them.’

The problem with this attitude is that it reeks of the personal biases of our own culture. It assumes our version of life and science and our advances in technology are superior to those of other people. We are looking down on them. Ms. Glass-Coffin has coined a new phrase to describe it. You have heard of ethnocentric beliefs? That’s when a culture believes it is superior to others; primarily because it values it’s own beliefs and rationalizes them. The phrase she came up with is cognicentric behavior. It is when we believe our thoughts and knowledge are superior to other cultures. Our beliefs are better because they are ours.

I wonder how many anthropologists have actually tried spirit walking?